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The Catholic Response to Scandal

Most Rev. Raymond Burke La Crosse, Wisconsin
12/12/2003 8:30:00 PM
By Bishop Raymond Burke Diocese of La Crosse
Wisconsin - Milwaukee Wanderer Forum

This address given at the Milwaukee Wanderer Forum, December 6-7, 2002 Co-sponsored by the St. Gregory VII Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith Wanderer Forum Foundation, & Living Catholic Seminars


December, 2002 - What has happened in the last eleven months in the life of the Church in our nation is something that I could never have imagined. Having grown up in the Catholic faith, in a family which has always loved the Church and had the deepest respect and affection for her pastors, it has been most difficult for me to comprehend the seemingly unending stories of the sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic priests and bishops, recounted in the newspapers and through the other communications media. It has been equally difficult to comprehend the reports of the callous manner of handling such abuse on the part of certain Church authorities. What has been a scandal for so many in the Church has also been a scandal for me as a bishop of the Church. I have to confess to times of profound anger with individuals who have perpetrated such crimes and with bishops who have not taken appropriate action to discipline the perpetrators and to protect children and young people from such profound harm.

Having met and spoken with a number of victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, I have painfully come to understand more and more the long-term and devastating effects of the breach of the most sacred trust between a child and his or her spiritual father. It has been understandingly difficult, at times, to respond with the attitude of Christ, with the attitude which our Catholic faith teaches us and in which our Catholic faith forms us, to the scandal which you and I have suffered.

For me as bishop, the scandal personally suffered is profoundly deepened by the accusations, frequently expressed, that I, too, have been only interested in covering up the sins of priests, without concern for the victims who have suffered at their hands, and that I, too, have squandered the patrimony of the Church in doing so.

From a purely human point of view, it is a fact that today is not a good time to be a bishop. When you have given your entire life to the service of the Church and have tried always to teach Catholic faith and morals, and to live accordingly, it is painful to recognize that you now have been placed in a category of persons, subject to the strongest distrust on the part of the very persons whom you have been called to serve and for whom you have given your life in response to Godís call.

But, from the perspective of Godís will for us, whatever time a priest is called to serve the Church as a bishop is a good time. Our faith teaches us that we are called to live in these times and to bear the cross of Christ in carrying out His mission, no matter how difficult the challenges may be. Our faith leads us to seek a deeper understanding of the Catholic response to scandal, so that the suffering of the scandal will not be useless but rather will become the means of growth in holiness of life for us personally and for the whole Church.

The Nature of Scandal

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: "Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil... Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense." (CCC, No. 2284) Scandal becomes more grave if it is caused by a person in authority or if those affected are weak or suffer very much already.

Our Lord used some of his harshest words to indicate the gravity of the sin of the man who would lead one of the "little ones" into sin. (Mt 18:6) Our Lord observes that it is inevitable that scandals will occur. (Mt 18:7) We are sinful human beings and sadly at times we commit sinful acts which are the cause of scandal to another. But our Lord further observes:

"Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes!" (Mt 18:7)

So serious is the moral obligation to avoid scandal that we are admonished not only not to do wrong but also not to appear to do wrong. When a person acts, he or she must always consider the appearance of the act to be done. If a reasonable person could take the act to be gravely immoral, then a person is not to commit the act, even if there is no immorality involved at all.

Here there is a delicate balance, for the viewer of the act can engage in what we call pharisaical scandal. Saint Paul teaches the Corinthians: "Take care, however, lest in exercising your right you become an occasion to the weak." (1 Cor 8:9) We must consider the true weight of our action before another ...

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